Monday, November 27, 2006

week of Nov. 26-Dec. 2

"Phantom Limb" - the Shins
Rarely have I heard a rock'n'roll songwriter sing inscrutable lyrics with such heartbreaking sincerity as the Shins' front man, James Mercer. Over time I've decided it's quite an alluring, perhaps even unique, attribute. Most if not all of pop music's traffickers in willfully opaque lyrics sing with more emotional flatness, maybe a bit of an ironic smirk, or sometimes even aggressive overcompensation. But Mercer has figured out how to be sincere, even movingly sincere, while singing words that only intermittently (at best) reveal any straightforward meaning. Clearly he, at least, knows what he's singing about--which is exactly what keeps me going back to tease out whatever meaning I can. And at that point, Mercer's ability to write subtly beautiful melodies becomes another alluring feature of his songwriting. To think of his songs simply as "catchy" (Google "Shins" and "catchy" and check it out) sells Mercer way short, because he's doing much more than writing songs to hum after one listen. As one example, listen to the secondary melody he uses from 0:18 to 0:24--it follows the ascendant opening melody, employing now a couple of minor chords to end the verse in an unresolved place, just in time to return to the surging melody that we began with, although even then he alters the tail of it a bit. I love too the unexpected falsetto note he hits at 0:58 and the subsequent turn the melody takes there in the middle of what is probably the chorus. It's almost as if he's writing classical motifs rather than pop melodies, and your ability to note them and hear when they recur greatly adds to the pleasure of your listening experience. "Phantom Limb" is the first single from the band's much-anticipated third CD, Wincing the Night Away, which will be officially released next month on Sub Pop Records. The CD however has been "leaked" online as of October, causing much hubbub in blogoland. The MP3 is now available legally via the Sub Pop site.

"Decider" - Prototypes
A buzzy, deadpan, neo-new wave rave-up. The appeal here is all in the vibe: there's something steely and electro going on with that astringent drumbeat and ringing guitar line; at the same time singer Isabel Le Doussal's uninflected speak-singing in the verse adds something mysterious and earthy to the beat-driven proceedings, which churn away with unrelenting vigor. The chorus, meanwhile, adds enough melody and bouncy synthesizer to make the return of the steely-electro section seem appealingly inevitable. Keep your ears open for unexpected additions to the sonic palette: the percussive, off-kilter metallic accents at around 1:20, for instance; or the whistly, arcade-game chirping that pops up around 2:36; and is that an accordion near the end? I think maybe. Prototypes are a French trio with one full-length CD released so far in the U.S. "Decider" can be found on a new EP called Je Ne Te Connais Pas, released for free online last week by Minty Fresh Records.

"Giver" - Patrick Watson
I'm guessing there aren't a lot of indie rockers who know who Steve Reich is; Montreal's Patrick Watson has actually played with the man. This suggests the U.S.-born, Canada-raised pianist/singer/songwriter Patrick Watson is at the very least an interesting, multifaceted musician. "Giver" suggests he also knows a thing or two about writing and performing a stylish pop song. To begin with, there's Watson's rich, echoey tenor, which maintains its character even soaring occasionally into the falsetto-sphere. As I listen repeatedly I'm struck by the song's great texture--without piling on instruments or effects, it delivers a gratifying sense of motion and change throughout. Some of that has to do with the effective use of time signature changes (relatively rare in three and a half minute rock tunes), and some may have to do with the underlying, Beatle-like sense of jauntiness in the air--the Beatles were nothing if not masters of texture in pop music. And okay maybe I have a soft spot for the guy because he loves Debussy. If more people loved Debussy the world would be a better place. "Giver" is a track from the CD Close to Paradise, which was released in Canada in September on Secret City Records; this is Watson's third CD but Secret City's very first release ever. The MP3 is available via the Secret City site. An American release is expected next month, although you can already buy it electronically via iTunes. Thanks to the Listen for the lead.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

week of Nov. 19-25

"Song About Dying" - The Casting Couch
Have I been in a rut? Do I always put the quiet songs second? This has occurred to me. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. But this week I'm starting quiet, and maybe a little sad. Though not as sad as you'd think from the title. And it doesn't stay completely quiet, either. I really like the variety of instruments that show up here--hand bells, clarinet, a horn of some sort, a (I think) theremin(!)--but even more I like how these instruments just kinda sorta play, they just do their thing without fuss, making an ensemble blending hand bells, clarinet, a horn of some sort and even maybe a theremin sound like well, yes, doesn't everyone? Meanwhile, singer Wendy Mitchell has just the right sort of crack in her not-quite-twangy voice for this down-home alt-country meets chamber pop lullaby. The Casting Couch is based in Austin, but combines the talents of musicians from both Texas and Athens, Georgia. "Song About Dying" is from the band's debut full-length CD, Row Your Boat, which was released on I Eat Records at the very end of last year. The MP3 is available via the I Eat site. Thanks to Alan at Sixeyes for the lead.

"Radio" - Apes and Androids
If this sounds at first like just another blippy bit of electro-rock sung by another nasally vocalist, well, okay, it is a blippy bit of electro-rock sung by a nasally vocalist--but it's also a whole lot more. If you want a hand-hold, here's one point that gave me a clue this was something significant: after the opening melody, where it sounds like it's just a nasally guy singing blip-rock, check it out: at 0:23, a chorus of voices opens up, somewhat Queen-like but not exactly, and they're not singing any words, just an extended "oh," but oh what an "oh"--there are a copule of interesting descending lines and nice chords in there even as the lead singer joins in on top with a resolutely dissonant "counter-oh," as it were. Whoa. And then: the initial melody returns but now there's an awesome chord in there, somehow, at 0:43. Listen to that and and then best of all listen to how it comes back at 0:59 with backing harmonies. Whoa-ho. Soon a vaguely Middle Eastern synthed-up guitar lines plays against soaring harmonies, then stops for a gliding funk break and we regroup back into blippiness before a big bashy wash of sound closes things out, like some sort of robot orchestra kicking out the jams. This is seriously unusual and engaging, always a good combination. A relatively new band, Apes and Androids is from New York City and appears to be wowing live audiences wherever they go. "Radio" is available via the band's web site. Perhaps you haven't heard the last of these guys.

"In the Countryside" - Benjy Ferree
This one is weird (but enjoyable!) in a whole different way, as Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter Benjy Ferree gives us a crisp, head-bobbing ditty that sounds like an American version of a British music-hall romp, funneled through a nebulous '60s filter (T. Rex? the Kinks? Thunderclap Newman??). This is, in any case, one style of old-timey music that Bob Dylan has yet to wrap his arms around. We get a bit of fiddle, a little whistling, and a guitar trying to sound like a tuba, but mostly we get Ferree's high, appealingly robust voice--sounding not completely unlike Robert Plant, if he were on the front porch singing to the neighbor's children, perhaps in Tennessee. "In the Countryside" is from Leaving The Nest (Domino Records), Ferree's first CD, which was originally released in the D.C. area last year as an EP. The MP3 is via the Domino site.

Monday, November 13, 2006

week of Nov. 12-18

"Sedition's Wish" - 31Knots
Even as I am historically oriented towards the simple-sounding music that falls under the "pop" umbrella (the intelligent edge of the umbrella, in any case), I don't think that anyone's musical tastes are as rigid and unyielding as, say, American radio has long assumed. Sure, I love a smart and catchy pop song; but I also love something as dense and prickly as this song from the dense and prickly Portland, Ore.-based trio 31Knots. Mind you, I still need something to hook me, but the hooks don't always have to be soaring melodies and warm-and-fuzzy chord changes. For instance, once I'm accustomed to it, the clumpy melody of the verse, mirrored simultaneously by a meticulous guitar, has its own special charm. It's a careful-sounding, somewhat homely refrain that becomes the oddball backbone of this vaguely threatening song--and so even when the guitar explodes into almost incoherent noise (e.g. 1:14), note how you can still sing that central melody along with the noise, and how the noise halts at exactly the right moment for the refrain to return (1:25). My favorite iteration of the melody is in the middle of the song when an unexpected trumpet joins in (1:44), accompanying much as the guitar had originally, but not directly mirroring the vocal notes; instead it plays a semi-dissonant countermelody that gives a Kurt Weill-ish air to the proceedings, somehow. We get a bit more noise, a bit more horn, and then a smoother, flow-ier section as a coda. This is not a pop song, but it's less than four minutes long; it's not "catchy" but it sure engages me. "Sedition's Wish" can be found on the band's new EP, Polemics, which was released last week on Polyvinyl Records. The band also expects its fourth full-length CD, The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere, to be released early next year.

"Bird of Cuzco" - Nina Nastasia
Hollywood-born, New York City-based singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia has a pretty, unadorned voice that brings Suzanne Vega to mind, a bit, but not precisely, as Nastasia sounds more ordinary on the one hand (Vega's voice has always had an unearthly air) and yet also richer and rounder: the ordinary made extraordinary through breathtaking clarity and presence. Or something like that. This sad and stately acoustic guitar piece, adorned with cozy, precise piano accents, seems eerily aligned with the sort of day it's been out my window today--a gray, rainy, wet-leaved day that looks dreary yet somehow also comforts; the day and the song alike manage to be melancholy and heartening at the same time, a feeling-state I'm not sure there's a word for in English. "Bird of Cuzco" is from Nastasia's CD On Leaving, her fourth, which was released in September on Fat Cat Records, a British label. As with her previous discs, Nastasia has teamed again with engineer Steve Albini (don't call him a producer, he hates it), who has worked with a mighty range of alternative and indie musicians from the '80s through the '00s, including big names such as the Pixies, Nirvana, and P.J. Harvey. The MP3 is via Insound.

"She Had a Dream" - Elanors
Don't miss the opening combination of insistent drumming and sugary strings, an uncommon juxtaposition that lends a curious vibe to this idiosyncratic and gorgeous piece of music. The Chicago-based duo Elanors, featuring singer/pianist Noah Harris and wife Adriel Harris on guitar and backing vocal, paint big orchestral pictures of a familiar-seeming yet singular variety. (For the CD, Elanors have borrowed two players from the band Judah Johnson, for whom Noah plays keyboards.) Brian Wilson comes to mind, partly because of the orchestral aspirations, but mostly because of just how in-its-own-world this song seems. Having spent a certain amount of time reacquainting myself with Pet Sounds in recent weeks, I was struck anew by how thoroughly peculiar a sonic reality it presents, a peculiarity rooted somewhere in the marriage of the songs he wrote, the voice he sung them in, and the instruments he employed and how he employed them. With Elanors, a similar sort of splendid peculiarity is in the air. Note for instance the drumming again, which with or without the strings is just plain unusual, keeping up as it does a unflagging but continuously inventive triplet rhythm, three beats for each beat of the 4/4 measure, until the very end (oh and don't miss too that point, at 3:57, when the drum actually stops, just seconds before the end of the song; it's almost a revelation). "She Had a Dream" is a song from the band's second CD, Movements, released last month on Parasol Records. The MP3 is via the Parasol site.

Monday, November 06, 2006

week of Nov. 5-11

"Fifteen On Ice" - Tall Hands
Singer Justin Raisen has sure enough got Lou Reed's blasé NYC dude delivery down pat, but with a twist: while Reed tended to sing as if the apocalypse were just around the corner (not that this fazed him, mind you), Raisen sounds as if he actually knows how to smile. Not that he is smiling, but that he knows how, he and the other five members of Tall Hands. You can hear it in the upbeat piano riff that drives the song forward, and most of all in the tumble of unruly rhymes Raisen lets forth. He rhymes "sarcophagus" with "none of this"; he rhymes "cover" and "recover." And he likes rapid-fire rhyming, syllable-matching beyond even internal rhyming into something more manic: "Some kind of believer/total underachiever/dialing up a receiver/but the receiver won't see ya/and I won't see ya either." Tall Hands is a six-man band with enough personality, or ego(s), to consider themselves their own new genre, which they have named "boat rock." From what I've read so far it seems people are taking this as a joke, and maybe I'm crazy, but I actually hear it, and it starts in the banging piano background. If you want to hear it too, follow me specifically to the 2:02 mark and listen how the entire instrumental backing falls into step with that regular 1-2-3-4 piano beat, with nothing in between. The effect, for lack of a better word, is oceanic. I'm hearing some string sounds in here too, which accentuates the oceanic feeling. Close your eyes and check it out. Tall Hands released its self-titled EP a couple of weeks ago on the Pulse Recording label. The MP3 is via the's "band of the day" feature.

"Skara Brain" - Feathers
If the first 45 seconds or so of "Skara Brain" sound something like a small ensemble warming up, this is an ensemble the likes of which has not been heard too often before. We get a spaghetti-western-like guitar trading noodly licks with a cheery vibe, a combination that by itself makes this song worth listening to. And it's only just beginning. Don't miss too, in the introduction, the scratchy-echoey guitar noises, along with the electro-expando noises that sound like an old idea of what the future was going to sound like. Then we get a slinky beat, with psychedelic flourishes, and we're off. Except of course a minute or so later when the song appears prematurely to be ending. No worries--it's just an excuse for a new rash of strange sounds: scratchy-blippy-funky synthesizers, deep clownish drums, tinkly-pipey organs, and who knows what-all else. We never lose the beat after this; we also never lose the sense--difficult to attain in an instrumental--of the unexpected being ever around the corner. It's sort of like an Almodovar movie, where you can never guess, scene to scene, what's going to happen. Best of all, even though an instrumental, it definitely feels like a song, not just an extended groove. The trio from Miami calling themselves Feathers (not to be confused with Canada's The Lovely Feathers) just had their five-song "mini-album" Synchromy released on the Boulder-based Hometapes label last week. The MP3 is via the Hometapes site.

"Bike" - May Or May Not
It's sextet week, as May Or May Not is a six-piece band from Chicago. It's also lots-of-instruments week, as you'll hear a variety of horns on this one and, yes, that's a clarinet too. The horns carry a Latin American feel and yet, also, not, which is actually sort of endearing. Sometimes pastiche can be perfectly charming; assembled with the right sense of crazy, good-hearted spirit, music doesn't have to follow any particular "rules" about what's "authentic" or not. To my ears, this song is just way too much freewheeling fun, from the out-of-place (but not) horns to the '60s-style vocals to (best of all) the severe syncopation that gives the chorus its off-kilter hook. Whenever anyone knows enough about music to do something like that, I tend to pay attention. "Bike" is the title track to a four-song EP released on Two Thumbs Down Records in September. The MP3 is courtesy the Two Thumbs Down site.

* It's Election Day in the U.S. tomorrow. Don't forget to vote! As a reminder, or extra motivation, or whatever, here are two bonus Election Day songs:

** "Road to Peace" - Tom Waits (In this song from his new, triple-CD collection of career-spanning odds and ends, Waits allows himself to be a lot more direct in his lyrics than we are used to this grizzled mad genius being. Check it out.)

** "Banks of the Hudson" - John Hall (The former Orleans headman with a smart, tradition-savvy ballad; Hall himself is running for Congress in New York's 19th District and is well worth supporting if you happen to be someone who believes that democracy is a good thing. Hall was even "privileged" enough to be one of 20 Democratic candidates across the country whose supporters were targeted in recent days to receive dirty-trick "robo-calls" so I'm particularly supportive today. Only in the loony universe of one-party demagogues must election results be determined by trickery and deceit.)